Martin Luther King Jr.’s Challenge to Northern Liberalism and US Social Science

As he waged his fight for civil rights for Black Americans in the US South, Martin Luther King Jr. paid attention to American social science work on race. King was critical of this work, especially the notions of “social pathology” used to describe and explain the social conditions of African Americans. Many liberals, particularly in the US North, while critical of Southern racism, used this theory to justify their own neglect and discriminatory actions. Building on her presentation at the SSRC’s event on Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, Jeanne Theoharis draws attention to Myrdal’s blind spot for Northern liberals and how the broader social sciences’ language of pathology and culture were employed by Northern elites. King, she explains, challenged these concepts and argued that Black precarity was rooted in inequality and racism.